In Leviticus 19:17, we read: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart, rebuke your kinsman and do not incur guilt because of him.” Unpacking this verse, Maimonides tells us: “When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise the person… Rather, we are commanded to make the matter known and ask the person: ‘Why did you do this to me?’ ‘Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?’"
Further, he explains: “A person who rebukes a colleague… should rebuke the person privately. S/he should speak to the person patiently and gently, informing them that s/he is only making these statements for their colleague's own welfare.”
I’ve been thinking about those words often of late.
Item A: In recent weeks we’ve been in conversation with one of our partners beyond the Jewish community about a recent action they took that deeply troubled many members of our community. This is not the first time when, in the complexity of intergroup or interfaith relations, we’ve found ourselves raising concerns with partners about their actions (and as they raise concerns about our actions as well). And as in many of these cases, we’ve also been in ongoing consultation with several of our members who are also invested in this relationship. Questions arise: how should we express our objections: publicly or privately? collectively or individually? And to what end; i.e. what answers are we looking for? Will we be satisfied only by a particular action taken or are there times when reaching a new understanding is enough?
Item B: Not a day goes by that we don’t get at least dozens of emails and calls “offering” feedback on something we’ve done or said. Many of those notes are of a “thumbs up” nature,” others are expressions of disappointment, or worse. Often, over time, the same person will send both positive and negative notes that are both interesting and informative. We listen to all of it, we try to acknowledge most of it, and we certainly weigh it as we continue to learn and to improve our efforts.
There are a small number of people – from a variety of ideological points of view – who write often (say 10 times a week or more) using the same cut-and-paste lines in almost every note, practically yelling about only one or two topics, whether or not those topics are the subject of the message they are replying to. Others write less often, but their messages are always laden with vitriolic language, sometimes starting with ALL CAPS headers, that make plain their assumptions about our I.Q.s, our morals, and/or our loyalty to the Jewish community. I for one find myself tuning these out: They all go straight to the circular file; no response required.
Item C: On Monday Ambassador Dermer was asked for his thoughts about American Jewish criticism of Israeli government policies. His response – and I am paraphrasing here – was that when an organization issues 100 press releases and 99 of them criticize Israel, the response is to tune them out. But when Israel’s friends, who’ve stood with them in challenge and celebration, criticize them on a couple of things, they hear that.
All of these are, to my mind, connected to an idea deeply rooted in Jewish wisdom such as from Maimonides; that rebuke (tochachah) is strengthened when it comes from a place of love (ahavah). This thread runs through the work of community relations. Whether, as in the example of the external partner, it is about the context of a trusting relationship in which to engage in authentic rebuke coming from love. Or whether, as with these members of our community, it’s about being effective in giving the rebuke. Or, as in the case of Israel (or all of these cases), it is about being able to be heard.
In our ancient rabbis’ discussion of why Aaron was mourned more broadly than his brother Moses, they tell us that Aaron “also… would prevent Israel from transgressing, however he would do this through words of appeasement and reconciliation.” I find myself thinking about how we give, and receive, constructive criticism. None of us is perfect. But as we strive to be more so, we welcome the wisdom and feedback of those we have come to trust.
May we learn to hear each other, and to be heard.